Information Warfare: Watching The Watchers In China

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July 19, 2013: The massive and generally effective Chinese censorship of Internet use within China has one drawback for the Chinese government. Since the censors are constantly changing the list of forbidden words and phrases, anyone (with sufficient resources) can monitor a sample of posting (of public messages) activity and note which words or phrases are suddenly missing. This has proved useful in showing who, or what, is in trouble with the Chinese government and predicts government actions (like who is going to be arrested or what foreign government or policy is going to be changed). The Chinese like to keep their censorship policies secret, often so they can deny what they are doing. But it is possible to monitor Chinese social networks (like their version of twitter, the miniblogs) to see what the government censors are up to.

This is all made possible by the Golden Shield (or “Great Firewall of China” in the West), a huge information control system has been under construction for a decade. Golden Shield now has 40,000 Ministry of Public Security employees dedicated to monitoring and censoring Internet use throughout the country using specialized hardware and software and lots of paid and volunteer censors. Several billion dollars has been spent on this effort. While the Great Firewall cannot stop someone expert at how the Internet works, it does greatly restrict the other 90 percent of Internet users. And it provides a lot of information about what is going on inside all that Internet traffic. Year by year the Golden Shield operators learned what worked (to control news) and what didn't. Not only can Golden Shield keep news from getting out of a part of China but it can greatly limit how much contradictory (to the government version) news gets into China.

In 2011, China created a new organization to handle Internet censorship. Called the State Internet Information Office, it consolidated all Internet censorship activity. This is being done, in part, to halt the fragmentation of Internet censorship activity. This was happening because over a dozen government agencies engage in censorship (of films, TV, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, text books, and so on). Most of these agencies have expanded their efforts to include similar material that shows up on the Internet. This was leading to turf wars, or Internet sites getting an okay from one censorship authority and a shutdown notice from another. This sort of activity is typical of government bureaucracies, no matter where they are. If you can find another job, you can justify asking for more money and people. That's how most bureaucrats define progress and success.

Currently the main Internet censorship agency, the Golden Shield, uses filtering tools, which block message board or blog postings that contain forbidden words or phrases. In addition, some of the Golden Shield staffers personally monitor message boards and chat rooms that are suspected of generating politically incorrect discussions of events. Internet users who say the wrong thing too often are arrested or ordered to report to a police station for an interview. Some of the more troublesome bloggers or posters go to jail.

The censorship is applied differently in some parts of China (like Tibet or the Moslem northwest) and how that impacts postings can also be monitored by foreigners. Watching the censors at work can be very revealing, and so far China has not found a way to stop this “intrusive” (to secretive Chinese bureaucrats) activity.

 


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